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The Stem Cell Stain

Bush’s Decision Points Paints a Rosy Picture of His Impact on Stem Cell Research

Bush at his Ranch in TX SOURCE: AP Photo/Kenneth Lambert President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas in 2001, after announcing he supports funding for limited embryonic stem cell research for cell lines already derived from embryos. The decision had been one of the toughest for Bush since he took office.

“Out, damned spot!”

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1

Even George W. Bush’s severest critics cannot doubt the seriousness of purpose with which he approached the embryonic stem cell question. A summer of Oval Office meetings with scientists, theologians, and philosophers; sessions with his domestic policy staff; readings on ethics; and a meeting with Pope John Paul II preceded his climactic address in August 2001. That seriousness is further evidenced by the former president’s inclusion of the stem cell debate as one of 14 “decision points” in his new memoir. George W. Bush is a man who has come to admire intellectual curiosity, whether he has it or not.

On the subject of stem cells, and anything that has to do with a certain understanding of human dignity, Bush exhibits the zeal of the convert and the latecomer. The widespread impression that his reflection on problems of human destiny is of recent origin gains unintentional support in the opening paragraphs of chapter four, as he describes a White House lawyer reading to him from British writer Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (a cozy scene in jammies comes to mind), which was published in 1932. It depicts a future in which fetuses are bred and brought up in hatcheries, each engineered to one of five castes. The novel is frequently cited as a thought-provoking warning about science gone wrong. The 1997 American film “Gattaca” makes a similar point.

As a teacher, I know that such dystopias are brilliant ways to engage eager young minds, including it seems those of U.S. presidents, but science fiction has certain inherent limitations as a guide to 21st century science policy. Science fiction is necessarily about our hopes and fears for the future. It is not about the future, which is where we actually have to live. These two facts are easily confused. Fans of science fiction (of which I am one of 50 years’ standing) tend to notice the occasions when writers seem to have been prescient far more than when they have been dead wrong.

To his credit Bush juxtaposes Huxley’s dark vision with Nancy Reagan’s personal appeal on behalf of continued research. He credits a conversation with Professor Leon Kass, later to be chair of his bioethics council, as the one that led to his insight: If he funded research on stem cell lines that had already been derived then his administration wouldn’t be complicit in the destruction of future ones. He quotes Kass himself as confirming the logic of this position. By Solomonically splitting the difference, he wouldn’t be tacitly approving the destruction of future embryos.

The tacit approval argument in philosophy implies that any wrongfully obtained information has a fateful moral taint. It is an interesting and perfectly respectable argument, one that has been paradigmatically applied to any useful knowledge that might have been gained from the horrid experiments involving Nazi concentration camp inmates. For anyone who came along after the Holocaust, that association gives moral taint arguments their emotional power. In the case of human embryos, though, the argument begs the crucial question: Is the moral status of human embryos (in this case, those left over in fertility clinics) so great as to counter their value in learning about terrible diseases that affect born humans, such that there is a “taint” on the cells derived from them?

Arguments like this have an uncertain reach. How far do stains spread? In letting himself off the hook the president didn’t absolve the moral stain on “approved” lines; after all, they themselves came from destroyed embryos. Wouldn’t any knowledge that came from them be stained, including that paid for by the NIH? Why wouldn’t the origin of the material that permitted the exploitation of that knowledge stain the venerable NIH itself? Mightn’t any success even with the “approved” lines lead to further embryo destruction for more research, as has in fact happened? At least that should have been obvious within the first few months, when the technical limitations of the approved lines became evident. (In fairness, Bush quotes one distinguished stem cell biologist as saying that 10 to 15 lines would be enough but he doesn’t seem to understand that, unlike in politics, science changes in light of evidence.)

As might be expected in a political memoir, much of the chapter is devoted to score-settling: with scientists for failing to understand how he had helped them; with John Kerry for exploiting the issue during the 2004 campaign; with all those who painted him as “anti-science”; etc.

Bush ends on a triumphant note, taking credit for the development of induced pluripotent stem cells from adult tissues that mimic embryonic stem cells, even though this was first done in Japan. He cites sheep cloner Ian Wilmut’s enthusiasm for the new method but he fails to note that the biologists who actually developed this new technology have insisted that embryonic stem cells are still needed as laboratory comparisons to develop the new technique. Nor does he recall that his White House blocked Wilmut’s call for a ban on reproductive cloning as a crime against humanity because they wanted to stop all research cloning as well. Selective quotation is not the stuff of science.

Bush notes that the 1995 Dickey amendment to the NIH budget prohibits using federal funds for research that destroys human embryos. But in light of the ongoing legal dispute about NIH funding for embryonic stem cell research, perhaps the most striking aspect of the chapter is what the former president does not say: He does not say he had any doubt that under the Dickey amendment NIH could support funding on at least some embryonic stem cell lines. One hopes the D.C. Circuit Court borrows a copy of Decision Points as they deliberate or, better yet, just Xeroxes (read: clones) of that chapter.

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